How to Shift (Smoothly) From 1st to 3rd Person, and Back Again
When I drafted my first novel, I didn’t know it was against the rules to switch back and forth from 1st to 3rd person. My main character’s POV was in 1st which felt natural, but after a while, I wanted to let the reader see inside the hero’s head, so I plopped down a chapter in 3rd and continued drafting a crazy mixed-up jumble.
THEN, I discovered craft books. Oh me, oh my, I had broken the rules, but no … maybe not. It depended on which books and blogs I read. So I toyed with the manuscript, tweaking and re-writing, and after a while … those POV shifts almost worked. Over the course of three books, I learned a lot about POV shifts, and now I’d give anything to be able to go back and edit that first manuscript just a teensy bit more.
As a reader, many times I find myself in the middle of a chapter, only to realize I’m in the wrong character’s head. One time, I went back and skimmed several pages, re-living every word through the correct person’s perspective. So very annoying, but it taught me something. In my own writing, I need to make POV shifts easy for the reader, and now I follow a simple rule of thumb.
When switching from 1rd to 3rd (or vice versa), special care should be taken with the VERY FIRST sentence of the scene.
Even the first WORD, if possible. I need to cement the new POV in the reader’s mind, and the closer to the beginning of the scene the better. Here’s an example of the first line of a chapter written in 3rd person in Clyde’s perspective. The preceding chapter was in 1st in Lynda’s perspective.
Clyde wondered if he would always attend worship alone. As he slipped through the double doors of the Trapp church building and stood in the tiny foyer he could hear Dodd Cunningham teaching a Bible lesson behind a hollow door.
This works because I’ve immediately grounded Clyde with an internal thought to put the reader right in the character’s head. In the first two words of the chapter, the reader has no doubt in whose perspective the chapter is written (because Lynda can’t know what Clyde is wondering.)
This technique grows weaker when it is placed deeper into the scene. If I had switched the two sentences in the example, putting the action first, it would have muddied things up, because Lynda is capable of describing Clyde’s actions from her 1st person perspective.
If smooth enough, the untrained reader won’t even notice the switch from 1st to 3rd, and that’s my goal.
The goal is not to make a smooth transition, but an invisible one.
In order to check the invisibility of the shift, it’s good practice to read aloud the last paragraph of the preceding chapter followed by the first paragraph of the new one. I put myself in the reader’s chair, and determine if the transition is smooth enough to avoid confusion.
This all seems simple enough, right? But … oh, dear … there’s bad news:
It’s more difficult shifting from 3rd to 1st
Personally, when I read a book, third person is easier for me to digest. I feel as though the story is laid out in pieces, and I merely come along and pick them up. 1st person takes a little more work, because I’m becoming the character. Even more difficult, is reading from 3rd straight into 1st, because I have to adjust my thinking.
Once again, the trick is to put the reader into the head of the POV character as soon as possible. The problem lies in the fact that if I jump into 1st person narrative immediately after a 3rd person chapter, the reader has no idea who that 1st person character is. Not only is it jarring and confusing, but the reader is likely to throw down the book in frustration. So …
When switching from 3rd to 1st, I must label the POV character before giving the internal thought.
I have two options. In the first, I use another character to identify the POV character through a line of direct address. This points-out who the “I” is going to be, so the reader is prepared for the 1st person internal thought.
“Lynda, that man wants you.”
I pressed my lips together and scowled at Dixie, ending the conversation before it started.
The dialogue tells the reader that Lynda is in the room, and the very next sentence puts the reader in Lynda’s head, showing that this chapter is in 1st person, Lynda’s perspective. The internal thought isn’t in the first words of the chapter, so clearly, the shorter the dialogue the better. I also leave off dialogue tags here, making the distance from the word Lynda to the internal thought as short as possible.
Another way to label the POV character is to tag an inanimate object.
Lynda’s Makeup and Stuff.
The stenciling on my cosmetic case had faded, but I could still make out Velma’s handwriting.
This is the same principle as using a line of dialogue, only it gives you the freedom to have the character in a scene alone. Another option is to show a text message, or voicemail, or—with a subtle twist on the dialogue idea—have the character remember a line of dialogue from a previous scene.
In spite of going to great lengths to soften the transition for readers, POV shifts can still be jarring, but it seems that readers have learned to adjust as we writers stretch the limits and change the rules. And that’s good for us, because it’s fun to be able to give readers a different literary experience.
What tricks do you use to make POV shifts smooth or possibly … invisible?
Varina Denman writes stories about the unique struggles women face. A native Texan who spent her high school years in a small Texas town, Varina now lives near Fort Worth with her husband and five mostly grown children. Her passion is helping others make peace with their life situations. Varina’s Mended Hearts series is a compelling blend of women’s fiction and inspirational romance. Connect with Varina through her website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.